It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
The next Saturday Susan was busy preparing two rooms for Mr. Eden--a homely but bright bedroom looking eastward, and a snug room where he could be quiet downstairs. Snowy sheets and curtains and toilet-cover showed the good housewife. The windows were open, and a beautiful nosegay of Susan's flowers on the table. Mr. Eden's eye brightened at the comfort and neatness and freshness of the whole thing; and Susan, who watched him furtively, felt pleased to see him pleased.
On Sunday he preached in the parish church. The sermon was opposite to what the good people here had been subject to; instead of the vague and cold generalities of an English sermon, he drove home-truths home in business-like English. He used a good many illustrations, and these were drawn from matters with which this particular congregation were conversant. He was as full of similes here as he was sparing of them when he preached before the University of Oxford. Any one who had read this sermon in a book of sermons would have divined what sort of congregation it was preached to--a primrose of a sermon. Mr. Eden preached from notes and to the people--not the air. Like every born orator, he felt his way with his audience, whereas the preacher who is not an orator throws out his fine things, hit or miss, and does not know and feel and care whether he is hitting or missing. "Open your hand, shut your eyes, and fling out the good seed so much per foot--that is enough." No. This man preached to the faces and hearts that happened to be round him. He established between himself and them a pulse, every throb of which he felt and followed. If he could not get hold of them one way, he tried another; he would have them--he was not there to fail. His discourse was human; it was man speaking to man on the most vital and interesting topic in the world or out of it; it was more, it was brother speaking to brother. Hence some singular phenomena. First, when he gave the blessing (which is a great piece of eloquence commonly reduced to a very small one by monotonous or feeble delivery), and uttered it, like his discourse, with solemnity, warmth, tenderness and all his soul, the people lingered some moments in the church and seemed unwilling to go at all. Second, nobody mistook their pew for their four-poster during the sermon. This was the more remarkable as many of the congregation had formed a steady habit of coming to this place once a week with the single view of snatching an hour's repose from earthly and heavenly cares.
The next morning Mr. Eden visited some of the poorest people in the parish. Susan accompanied him, all eyes and ears. She observed that his line was not to begin by dictating his own topic, but lie in wait for them; let them first choose their favorite theme, and so meet them on this ground, and bring religion to bear on it. "Oh, how wise he is!" thought Susan, "and how he knows the heart!"
One Sunday evening three weeks after his first official visit he had been by himself to see some of the poor people, and on his return found Susan alone. He sat down and gave an account of his visits.
"How many ounces of tea and tobacco did you give away, sir?" asked Susan, with an arch smile.
"Four tea, two tobacco," replied the reverend gentleman.
"I do notice, sir, you never carry gingerbread or the like for the children."
"No; the young don't want lollypops, for they have youth. Old age wants everything, so the old are my children, and I tea and tobacco them."
After this there was a pause.
"Miss Merton, you have shown me many persons who need consolation, but there is one you say nothing about."
"Have I, sir? Who? Oh, I think I know. Old Dame Clayton?"
"No, it is a young demoiselle."
"Then I don't know who it can be."
"No, sir," said Susan, looking down.
"It is yourself, Miss Merton."
"Me, sir! Why, what is the matter with me?"
"That you shall tell me, if you think me worthy of your confidence."
"Oh, thank you, sir. I have my little crosses, no doubt, like all the world; but I have health and strength. I have my father."
"My child, you are in trouble. You were crying when I came in.
"Indeed I was not, sir!--how did you know I was crying?"
"When I came in you turned your back to me, instead of facing me, which is more natural when any one enters a room; and soon after you made an excuse for leaving the room, and when you came back there was a drop of water in your right eyelash."
"It need not have been a tear, sir!"
"It was not; it was water. You had been removing the traces of tears."
"Girls are mostly always crying, sir; often they don't know for why, but they don't care to have it noticed always."
"Nor would it be polite or generous; but this of yours is a deep grief, and alarms me for you. Shall I tell you how I know? You often yawn and often sigh; when these two things come together at your age they are signs of a heavy grief; then it comes out that you have lost your relish for things that once pleased you. The first day I came here you told me your garden had been neglected of late, and you blushed in saying so. Old Giles and others asked you before me why you had given up visiting them; you colored and looked down. I could almost have told them, but that would have made you uncomfortable. You are in grief, and no common grief."
"Nothing worth speaking to you about, sir; nothing I will ever complain of to any one."
"There I think you are wrong; religion has consoled many griefs; great griefs admit of no other consolation. The sweetest exercise of my office is to comfort the heavy hearted. Your heart is heavy, my poor lamb--tell me--what is it?"
"It is nothing, sir, that you would understand; you are very skilled and notice-taking, as well as good, but you are not a woman, and you must excuse me, sir, if I beg you not to question me further on what would not interest you."
Mr. Eden looked at her compassionately, and merely said to her again, "What is it?" in a low tone of ineffable tenderness.
At this Susan looked in a scared manner this way and that. "Sir, do not ask me, pray do not ask me so;" then she suddenly lifted her hands, "My George is gone across the sea! What shall I do! what shall I do!!" and she buried her face in her apron.
This burst of pure Nature--this simple cry of a suffering heart--was very touching, and Mr. Eden, spite of his many experiences, was not a little moved. He sat silent, looking on her as an angel might be supposed to look upon human griefs, and as he looked on her various expressions chased one another across that eloquent face. Sweet and tender memories and regrets were not wanting among them. After a long pause he spoke in a tone soft and gentle as a woman's, and at first in a voice so faltering that Susan, though her face was hidden, felt there was no common sympathy there, and silently put out her hand toward it.
He murmured consolation. He said many gentle, soothing things. He told her that it was very sad the immense ocean should roll between two loving hearts, "but," said he, "there are barriers more impassable than the sea. Better so than that he should be here and jealousy, mistrust, caprice, or even temper come between you. I hope he will come back; I think he will come back."
She blessed him for saying so. She was learning to believe everything this man uttered.
From consolation he passed to advice.
"You must do the exact opposite of what you have been doing."
"You must visit those poor people; ay, more than ever you did; hear patiently their griefs; do not expect much in return, neither sympathy nor a great deal of gratitude; vulgar sorrow is selfish. Do it for God's sake and your own single-heartedly. Go to the school, return to your flowers, and never shun innocent society, however dull. Milk and water is a poor thing, but it is a diluent, and all we can do just now is to dilute your grief."
He made her promise: "Next time I come tell me all about you and George. 'Give sorrow words, the grief that does not speak whispers the o'erfraught heart and bids it break.'"
"Oh! that is a true word," sobbed Susan, "that is very true. Why a little of the lead seems to have dropped off my heart now I have spoken to you, sir."
All the next week Susan bore up as bravely as she could, and did what Mr. Eden had bade her, and profited by his example. She learned to draw from others the full history of their woes; and she found that many a grief bitter as her own had passed over the dwellers in those small cottages; it did her some little good to discover kindred woes, and much good to go out of herself a while and pity them.
This drooping flower recovered her head a little, but still the sweetest hour in all the working days of the week was that which brought John Meadows to talk to her of Australia.